After completing her novel Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver was pondering themes for her next book. At the time, she “had a vague feeling the world as we knew it was ending.” This thought brought her to another “dangerously uncertain” time in our history – the 1870s, which led her to writing Unsheltered. Explaining her reasons for writing it, she said, “The country was wrecked by war and a book by Charles Darwin was shaking the very notion of what it meant to be human.” So, she “went looking for an American scientist involved in that radical debate” to use as a character and found Mary Treat living in Vineland, New Jersey. After much research, Kingsolver, in her own words, came to see that Vineland “had more real-life intrigue than I could use in several novels.” And, she had her setting.
I’m always interested in why an author chooses a certain locale. There are books where it’s obvious and many where the reader has no idea. Sometimes it seems as if the town doesn’t matter, that there is nothing germane to the story or theme – it’s simply where the characters live. Obviously not so in Unsheltered, though probably what readers will wonder when they read my novel, The Disharmony of Silence, coming out March 5, 2020 by Black Rose Writers.
One of my protagonists, (the novel is in dual time so there are two) lives in Tarrytown, NY. Why? The story isn’t set around the town’s history and has absolutely nothing to do with Ichabod Crane or Sleepy Hollow. Simply, it’s because I’ve always been attracted to a housing complex I see as I drive across the Tappan Zee Bridge (now named the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge). Therefore, I decided that’s where Carolyn would live. It’s close to her mother in New Rochelle, also there’s no major reason for using that town. It’s just that I once worked in New Rochelle and it was sexier than using my own home town, and a short train ride from New York City which is important in the novel.
Another character in my novel, Kate, who you could call the antagonist though there are several others, lives in Venice, California. Again, I could have chosen any town 3,000 miles from Carolyn’s home. The distance was important, though an editor once suggested I have Kate and Carolyn live closer together. Kate refused! But I spent a great deal of time in and around Venice and love the little streets surrounded by canals. Plus, it was fun to create a fictitious home with Birds of Paradise growing on either side of a sky-blue front door and a sun room where, above the roof line and through the trees, you could see the Pacific Ocean.
Thinking of a few novels I’ve recently read, some of the towns or countries where they’re set are pertinent to the story. For example, an historical fiction by Susan Meissner, The Last Year of the War, centers around US internment camps during WWII. Japan and Germany are definitely germane to that story, as is France in the historic adventure Listen to the Wind: The Orphans of Tolosa by Susanne Dunlap which takes place in the Languedoc region in the 13th Century. On the other hand The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh, which takes place in the wilds of West Virginia, could be set in any wilderness as long as it had bogs, though while listening to the audio book on Chirp, the narrator’s West Virginian drawl brought me further into the setting and I could smell the humid air. And in the novel I’ve just finished, The Girls of 17 Swann Street, the town does not matter at all. Yara Zgheib created a house on a street with characters I won’t soon forget – and I don’t know where the street is and it doesn’t matter!
Has this piqued your interest? Will you now wonder about the setting in the novel you’re reading, if it’s not obvious? I hope so. It makes discussing a book and the author’s intentions so much more fun.